As we argued in “Putin’s Master Plan,” Russia works relentlessly to undermine NATO, destabilize Europe and America, dominate the Middle East, and project its power around the globe, in a way that some argue makes it even more dangerous than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.
From Ukraine to Syria, from the Baltics to the Balkans, Putin presses forward aggressively in order to restore what he feels is Russia’s rightful status as the superpower dominating Europe, Asia, and even further afield. Consider his moves in Syria, his continued menacing of Ukraine, his serial violations of the INF Treaty, and even his brazen penetrations of American airspace and sea lanes in the Atlantic. Such provocations follow a concerted strategy, and all will worsen without a coherent, strategic American response.
There is little sign that what many now regard as a Putin victory in Ukraine will be reversed or even contained. In May 2017, Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel met and pledged to push to finalize the Minsk accords—the 2015 deal stipulating ceasefire terms in Eastern Ukraine, still on the table but no closer to fruition. Talk is cheaper than ever, though. The fighting continues.
In January 2017, more than 30 died in a clash between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russia rebels in the town of Avdiivka. Ominously, both sides used weapons banned under the ceasefire terms. Both accused the other of instigating the violence. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe called the fighting the heaviest in a year.
“The current escalation in Donbass is a clear indication of Russia’s continued, blatant disregard of its commitments under the Minsk agreements with a view of preventing the stabilization of the situation,” read a statement from Ukraine’s foreign ministry. Plans were discussed for evacuating the 16,000 residents of Avdiivka, where electricity and other utilities had been knocked out.
The attack came as the new Trump administration was reportedly considering lifting economic sanctions against Russia imposed by President Obama. At this writing, Congress has defied the president and moved to stiffen sanctions? As Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, put it, “The shelling is massive. Who would dare talking about lifting the sanctions in such circumstances? What additional proof is needed to bring the aggressors to justice?”
In Eastern Ukraine especially, the ravages of war are felt. “Hundreds of thousands of people are living under the perpetual threat of shelling, shooting, and land mines. Their access to basics like food, water, and electrical power has been dramatically curtailed,” said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
CNBC’s Dina Gusovsky identifies four key groups fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Putin’s aims: “Pro-Russian Ukrainians,” who had backed the former pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovich; “Mercenaries paid by Russian interests, including ethnic Chechens”; Russian separatists; and Russian special forces, which, according to her reporting, “are on the ground in Ukraine and have been for months.” Moscow denies this, but its past denials—about “little green men,” for example—have been widely debunked by news reports and international observers.
There is no question that, over the last several years, Putin has moved decisively toward victory in Ukraine. In the Donbas region, for example, schools are now closely following Russian educational standards, commerce is carried out in rubles, and Putin recently issued a decree recognizing passports and other documents issued by the separatist governments in Luhansk and Donetsk—which, in March 2017, seized control of about 40 Ukrainian companies. Critics point out that the Ukraine struggle has become enormously costly to Putin, and this is true; but my sense here is, again, that we are measuring Putin’s operations by conventional Western standards of self-interest. By Putin’s reckoning, what he has gained and stands to gain is worth the cost.